On the morning of Saturday, March 3, the sound of bagpipes and drums filled a bayside Beach 139th home as one of many bands in the 43rd Annual Queens County St. Patrick’s Day parade tuned up inside. On one of the bay-facing walls of the home, hangs that now iconic Pete Brady photo, showing a row of massive ocean waves threatening the old wooden boardwalk on the morning of October 29, 2012, before Hurricane Sandy would claim the whole boardwalk as one of its victims. Beyond the photo, the scene outside was eerily reminiscent of what happened that day more than five years before, as wild waves, stirred up by the remnants of a nor’easter, crashed over the bay wall and onto Beach Channel Drive. Fortunately, on this Saturday, the bay wasn’t going to meet the ocean like it did during Sandy. And what was taking place inside this home was the result of Sandy bringing together more than just the ocean and the bay.
Each year, the Rockaway St. Paddy’s Day parade features dozens of bagpipe bands from all across New York. Over the past few years, some may have wondered why the New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipes and Drums Band, hailing from two hours away in Connecticut, marches among them.
The answer goes back more than five years ago, to that Beach 139th bayside home, when a group of out-of-town firefighters showed up, needing some direction. “It was a few days after the storm and I was out front and a pickup truck full of guys comes down the block and they say, ‘can you tell us where 138th and Newport is?’ I asked what they were up to. They said they were from New Haven and they saw how the storm devastated Rockaway and they were just here to help,” John Blum, who shares his home with his wife, Joanne, and daughters, Courtney, Erin and Kerrianne, said. “As they were about to pull away for 138th, I said to them, ‘this is what’s left of my house. Feel free to use the bathroom or whatever you need.” And from there, a lifetime friendship between the Blum family and the New Haven Firefighters Emerald Society began.
“We’re an Irish organization and we heard there was a very heavy Irish population here with a lot of police and firemen, so we said, let’s go down and see what we can do,” Billy Richards, a retired New Haven firefighter and bagpiper, said. “We didn’t know a soul here.” That was, until they met Blum. Every weekend, about 40 members of the New Haven Firefighters Emerald Society would come back to Rockaway in pickup trucks, doing what they could to help, while using Blum’s house as a headquarters. “We basically helped clean up, rip out what was left of homes, commandeered a generator, brought a grill down to feed the neighbors and basically tailgated out of John’s house,” Richards said. “John basically told us the best place to set up for maximum coverage so we could serve the most people in the neighborhood,” John Hines, another band member said.
“I can’t tell you how much food, drinks, clothing, and everything they brought in the weeks after Sandy. It was just unbelievable,” Blum said. “They set up tents and a grill and fed the community and they kept coming back with tools to help and used me as a reference point to direct them to the houses of people who needed whatever after the storm. They just kept coming back and helping.”
In exchange for being able to use Blum’s home while working around the neighborhood, the New Haven helpers started to show generosity to their hosts. “In between helping, they would come here and drink and we started making fun of them, saying, who tailgates at a hurricane?” Joanne Blum said. “One by one, they would go upstairs and use the bathroom, and later that night, I went upstairs and was shocked by what I found. Every guy that went to the bathroom had left $20 or $50 bills. There was like a thousand dollars by the end of the night and no one knew it,” she added.
That generosity would continue for years to come. After helping during Sandy, John Blum encouraged the New Haven band to march in Rockaway’s own St. Paddy’s Day parade. In 2013, the first parade after the storm, the New Haven Firefighters Emerald Society Pipe Band joined the lineup, and they have each year since. As a thanks, the Blums host the band at their home pre- and post-parade and show them true Rockaway Irish hospitality, with food and drinks aplenty. And the band members still pay them back. “That year when we left money in John’s medicine cabinet after Sandy, he was pissed. So when they invited us to march in the parade and put out this spread, we took up a collection and left it in his medicine cabinet again,” Richards said. “The next year, he was on to us and he had taped off all the medicine cabinets because he didn’t want the money. So we went to Home Depot and bought our own medicine cabinet and put the money in it and left it in his garage.”
“They’re always leaving something and playing pranks on my dad,” daughter, Courtney Blum said. “I run the St. Edmunds golf outing for work so we invited them to come play,” Joanne Blum said. “A few of the guys went but I don’t play golf, so while John and Joanne were at the outing, me and a couple guys went to their house and ripped the whole garage apart and redid it,” Richards said.
“If we ever had any doubts about the goodness of humanity, these guys proved us wrong. They were our heroes. They couldn’t give enough and it hasn’t stopped,” Joanne said. “When I first met these guys, I figured we’d never see them again, like some others that helped out after the storm, and yet here we are, five years later,” daughter, Erin Blum said.
Besides coming to march in the parade, the New Haven guys have also come back to Rockaway for things like the Irish Festival, the Hope for the Warriors weekend, and for days on the beach. John Blum now also marches in the New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“This was one of those things that you couldn’t have forecasted. We came out here just looking to help and we happened to meet John by chance and it’s incredible that something like Sandy was the origin of a lifelong friendship,” Richards said. “We call it ‘Blum Luck.’”BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS